A Lesson in Culture Shock: Getting Used to the Wildlife in and Around the House

Published: November 7th 2009
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“There are no words to describe that paradise.” These were the words of my friend Jeff, who lives in San Jose, Costa Rica, when I asked him about Playa Samara. It is a beach town five hours west of San Jose, on the Pacific Coast. It is one of the last and best pure beach towns left whose coastline hasn’t become an advertisement for hotel chains. “You’re going to love it.”

Our itinerary from the Language School told us we were to live on the beach with a mid-twenties Costa Rican couple with two kids and a dog. The short synopsis used delightful adjectives like “chatty” to describe the family, and promised it would be a short walk down the beach to get to school. It sounded like the epitome of Pura Vida.

But when we first arrived, things didn’t look so pure.

When the cab pulled up to the house in which we were to live for the next month, my wife Alisa, was a bit skeptical. “Is that even a house?” And in her defense, there were quite a few ramshackle huts sprawled around the muddy streets. Our house was in fact the nicest one there, and it was a house.

The room was cramped and the house tiny, which was to be expected. It was right on the beach, which was awesome. The house was one of about five structures built into a horseshoe shape that made up the small compound of the Gutierrez family. Our Tico mother and father weren’t in when we got there, so the grandmother showed us in. We settled into our room and went for a walk on the beach.

That first walk began what was to be our biggest hurdle: Getting used to the wild wildlife. The first example we found of this was all the dogs. There were four or five dogs in the Gutierrez compound, and we’re still trying to figure out who belongs to who. When we went for our walk on the beach, we found muchos mas perros.

Here in Samara every dog is looking for an owner, or at least someone who will feed it. So as Alisa and I walked down the beautiful beach for the first time, a nice little brown and white dog ran along next to us and brushed up against us, wagging its tail.

“Oh, isn’t he cute?” Alisa asked.

“Yeah, I wonder what his name is.” The dog had a collar, and I stooped to take a look and sure enough it was right on the pendant, which said “RABIES VAC 5-10-08.”

I showed my wife. “Take a look, its even got his birthday, looks like ole Rabies here is about a year and a half old.”

“Aww, he’s just a puppy.”

And we walked down the beach with Rabies, and I threw coconuts toward the water and he happily retrieved them, even though they were exactly half the size of his entire body. And other dogs would run up and wag their tails at us, and smell their friend Rabies. It was a pleasant start to our first day.

Then the wildlife started piling up in scales and feathers.

Geckos are on all the walls. These little pink guys and girls whose calls sound like that of a small monkey with his nose plugged. They scurry around light bulbs and there is always one or two in our room. I once had one land on my head.

There are pigs in our front yard. “So we live with pigs,” I assured Alisa. “At least they seem friendly.” I quickly named them Snowball and Napoleon.

Dozens of chickens peck around the beach during the day and sleep in the trees at night. That more than anything reminds me of home back in the ghetto.

Our Tica mom bought four geese two days after we arrived, “For the ambiance,” she said in Spanish, because I guess a ranch vibe wasn’t complete with just pigs, chickens and dogs.

Then there are the monkeys in the trees. Those are cool. Our Tico dad says that they’ll come down to you if you have a banana. I plan on convincing Alisa to do it and catching what happens on video.

Then there are the bugs.

When we set to unpacking on that first day, we were a bit worried to see at least thirty to forty ants within ten minutes. There were also multiple species of flying insects flapping around in the heat. The room wasn’t dirty, and ants aren’t necessarily the final Mayan sign of the apocalypse, but its weird tolerating something in your bedroom you haven’t tolerated your entire life. If we find more than two ants in any room in the states I call my dad and ask him for the ant sprayer. Even so, we brushed them out the window and made sure our drawers were closed all the way, and were okay.

Then I saw the roaches.

When I see a cockroach, the first thing I do is act natural and make sure not to tell my wife. The first couple of them were pretty well hidden, so when Alisa wasn’t looking I stomped my foot at them, hoping they’d get the picture. They didn’t. When Alisa finally did see one it was like watching a horror film in slow motion, you know, the one where the girl opens her locker and the severed head of her quarterback boyfriend comes tumbling out, and her eyes get wide, her body tenses, her hands go to her face, and the scream doesn’t come out for what seems like five seconds, and when it does the windows all break.

It took an hour to convince Alisa to stop packing up. She kept saying, “I’ll just camp on the beach!”

“But honey, there’s even more roaches out there next to Snowball and Napoleon, and those are feral roaches, not domesticated like the ones in the house!”

Then there’s the crabs in our bedroom. Our shower is two feet from our bed. When we get out of bed all we have to do is stand up, take one step, and we are in the shower. There are these little crabs in and around the shower. They are about an inch or two long and seem to be harmless.

Then night fell.

The bugs aren’t bad during the day, but at night it’s like they all start drinking. I guess the only difference between the insects and the students at our language school is we drink alcohol, they drink human blood. And after an overwhelming first day of meeting the family and getting settled in, it was a rough night for Alisa and I with all the bugs. You see, our reactions to a bug landing on us were both surprising and violent. We whirl and slap with the quickness and reflexes of a goalie in the NHL. So all that first night we whirled and slapped ourselves, and each other, and didn’t sleep a wink.

And then, at about four in the morning, when we were just beginning to nod off from exhaustion, it began.

It started with a low rumble. A gurgle even. Then it began to crescendo into a deep cacophony of wailing so deep and loud the walls began to shake.

“What in the hell is that!” Alisa screamed.

We were both sitting straight up in bed, eyes wide open. And the wailing continued. The sound made me think of my childhood on the farm in Hayward, when we used to neuter the male sheep. How you neuter a male sheep, or ram I guess you call them, is you take a rubber band and keep twisting it around its balls until it cuts off all circulation. Then you leave it there for a week and wait for them to fall off. And for that entire week the rams walk around groaning a deep, low grumble, as if they have the worst stomach ache in the world, which they pretty much do.

Except in Playa Samara at four in the morning, it sounded like five of those hapless sheep were standing outside of our window groaning through megaphones for two hours straight. They say it is the monkeys that make that godawful sound. Then the chickens and geese were awake and screaming at the dawn too. Even our earplugs couldn’t keep out the roar.

And our first day of school was a haze. Scratching all the bites on our legs and arms while trying to stay awake for grammar lessons, we couldn’t help fearing the nights to follow. Luckily, while reading through our welcoming pamphlet, I discovered the key to our eventual happiness. The pamphlet outlined the three stages of culture shock, and we were prime candidates. I showed Alisa.

“This isn’t culture shock, Matt, those are cockroaches. I don’t have culture shock, I just hate insects.”

“But honey, that’s Stage 1, ‘Denial and Hatred.’”

And sure enough, it seemed like all the uncomfortable thoughts racing through our minds after our first night were nothing more than normal acclimation struggles.

“You mean the cockroaches in the bedroom aren’t bad?” Alisa asked.

“Exactly sweetie. The problem is you, don’t you see?”

And our school is beautiful, and right on the beach. It couldn’t be better. We stayed there until it got dark and had to go home.

After the screaming and slapping noises of our first night, our Tica mom got us a mosquito net. I guess they can’t afford to replace the windows once a week. And the net has really improved things. Now we get as much sleep as we need without waking up from a swift slap in the face. Sometimes we’ll wake to find a crab climbing the net, but we flick them off and go back to sleep.

But it is amazing how we humans adapt. After a week here it seems like we’re home. You get used to the heat and the bugs. Alisa may never get used to the cockroaches, but everything else is great.

For me, I won’t ever get used to putting the toilet paper in the trash after wiping. Ever. If we were staying with Native North Americans I imagine they would call me “He of a Thousand Wipes.”

And so we have settled in here in Playa Samara, and things could not be better. We are learning Spanish at a beautiful school on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. My classroom doesn’t have a front wall, and is twenty yards from the sand. We are taking dancing, cooking, surfing and conversation lessons. I play soccer four days a week for various teams, and we almost feel Costa Rican.

Just last night around four in the morning, just as the pigs, or monkeys, or whatever the hell makes that godforsaken noise, began its serenade, I was awoken by something new. The geckos were calling each other on the walls just above our heads, and the cockroaches were flying around the ceiling. The mosquitoes and moths were flapping against the net, and geese and chickens were squawking away outside, when I had what felt like an enormous wet maple leaf settle on my back. But my days of whirling and slapping are long gone. I casually turned to find the mother crab, which I assume lives under our bed, staring at me from three inches away, clicking her claws. I gently turned and let her slide off my back toward Alisa. I thought she’d be warmer in-between the two of us. Alisa scooted over to make room, and we both fell back into a deep, pure sleep.


7th November 2009

The best yet!
Am falling out of my chair laughing...this has to be the best of the Costa Rica series from Matt Amaral. Keep 'em coming!!! Leslie

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